Your First Mountain Bike Moves

Shifting Gears

My son and his friend were discussing bikes and gears. His friend believed that by merely moving the lever into a higher gear, a higher speed would result . . . without an increase in effort. True, a higher potential speed may be reached if you have 21 different gear configurations instead of 10 (the number of teeth and ring diameter are what actually affect potential speed) . . . but not without pedaling harder.

Shifting gears can sometimes be confusing at first. The style of shifter may vary from bike to bike, but the basic concept is the same: The right shifter lengthens and shortens a cable attached to a spring-loaded derailleur which moves the chain to a different size gear on the back (freewheel); the left shifter pulls or drops the chain to a different size gear on the front (crankring).

In order to understand this relationship of speed to energy output (the sweat off your brow), lift the bike's back tire off the ground and have someone turn the pedals slowly while you steady the handlebar and operate the shifters. Notice how a smaller gear on the freewheel provides more resistance than a larger gear. On the crankrings it's just the opposite: the smaller ring provides the least resistance. That's the confusing part, but with a little practice it will become easy.

In the parking lot, pedal with the chain on the largest back gear and on the smallest front gear (the easiest gear combination), reaching 90 rpms. Keep the chain on the smallest front ring but keep shifting the chain onto the next larger back gear until you've reached the fifth gear. Make sure you have plenty of room in the parking lot because you'll be riding pretty fast and will have gone at least 50 yards by the time you get into fifth gear. When you have the chain on the fifth gear, begin downshifting until you reach"1" (first gear); don't forget to keep pedaling whenever you shift, up or down.

Now shift onto the next larger crankring by keeping the rear chain position on the largest gear and moving the left shifter one position only. Feel how the pedaling takes on a different resistance? Now go through the sequence you tried earlier on the rear chain position, keeping the crankring in the "2" position. Chances are you'll reach a pretty high speed by the time you hit "4" on the freewheel. If it gets too fast for you, back off.

Avoid putting the chain in a cross-pedal position, which puts the chain at too great an angle from the frame. This is most often done by having the chain on the smallest front ring and the smallest back gear, although it is just as bad to have it in the opposite arrangement (the largest front ring and the largest back gear). The ideal position keeps the chain parallel (or nearly so) to the frame.

It's a good idea to stop in a low gear to make starting up again easy; however, if you find yourself stopped in a gear with too much resistance to start pedaling, dismount and put the right shifter into the "1" position. Pick up on the bike with one hand so that the back tire is off the ground and turn the pedal with the other hand until the chain finds the indicated gear. You'll soon learn to make those gear changes before coming to a complete stop, thereby avoiding having to get off and do a "dry" gear change.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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